Radicalism as a virtue


As any Intro Ethics final will note, Aristotle’s describes the virtues as “the middle state” between extremes of excess and deficiency. The paradigm case is courage, the virtue that sits between rashness and cowardice, respectively. This conception of virtue is labeled “The doctrine of the mean”, or simply “the golden mean”, and has its precursors in the Delphic Oracle’s imperative “Nothing in excess” and the Analects of Confucius.

The Doctrine of the Mean seems to oppose radicalism on its face. The very term “radicalism” connotes an extremism of views; if the virtue lies in the middle, then no radical view can be virtuous. As Paul and Adam suggested in a recent discussion, a virtue ethics seems to preclude compatibility with radical feminism by its very formal structure. Liberal feminism, as the more moderate view, seems prima facie the more virtuous position.

But this prima facie argument fails to appreciate the subtleties of the Golden Mean. For both Aristotle and his predecessors, the virtuous mean must be understood in relation to the extremes it avoids. A central motivation of these views is that the virtues can’t be known by any absolute criterion, but must be reckoned through reflection on the relationships we observe around us. To find the courageous mean, we must have models of not just courageous persons, but also of cowardly and rash persons. Not that we should be like the extremists, but we should watch them carefully because they set the boundaries, and it is in terms of these boundaries that I can hope to chart the virtues.

This argument has not yet established radicalism as a virtue. So far, I have only argued that the extremes have instrumental value to the virtuous. At most, this implies that the extremists cannot be eliminated from the discourse without moving where the middle lies. Indeed, the Overton window is moved not by negotiating the virtues, but by policing the extremes.

To go farther and see radicalism as a virtue, one must show that pursuing a radical or extremist beliefs is the most reasonable way to arrive at a virtuous or “middle” position. This may sound incoherent, but hopefully can be made intuitive with a few examples. First, consider orbital mechanics (more fun than archery). To get a probe to Pluto, it’s not enough to launch the probe at Pluto (and cross one’s fingers). Since Pluto is also a moving target, one must also anticipate where Pluto will be when you arrive (ten years later!), and adjust your launch path accordingly. This means that at the start, you’ll be launching a probe in a direction quite radically (!!) other than where you intend to go. But if you calculate carefully, in order to hit your target it’s precisely this radical direction you ought to aim. In this case, the radical solution just is the virtuous solution.

The point is that *aiming* at extremist views can be the most effective way to *arrive* at the correct (‘middle’) views. And, by extension, aiming at moderate views might land you on a view that isn’t virtuous at all. For a normative example that doesn’t involve space ships, consider Paul’s recent defense of liberal feminism against radical feminism.

Paul’s criticism of radical feminism (that it fails to respect the particular stories of individuals) seems lame in the face of the radical response he cites in the article (“that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy”). Indeed, at several points Paul remarks on how much of the radical feminist position is reasonably taken up by the liberal feminist view, and how hard it is to find solid ground to critique the radical.

Well, then, why think there must be a critique at all? Why can’t the radical feminist simply be correct? Paul responds by appeal to the golden mean: the extremist simply can’t be correct!

But look again at the case: Liberal (ie, moderate, “virtuous”) feminists hold views that are clearly grounded in and consistent with (if less radically articulated than) the radical feminists. This seems to exactly be a case where aiming at the radical position CAN leave one on the correct trajectory to a virtuous view. The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm. The moderates legitimize the work of the radicals at the edges (or discard what cannot be tolerated from the middle) until all the minis have been maxed. And behold, a virtue is born.

The point here is not that the radical is “correct”, or that the liberal is “correct”. The point is that both positions play a dynamical role in the discourse, both simultaneously serving to locate and reinforce the middle where they see fit, and both work together to accomplish this task even where they disagree. That the liberal and radical feminist overlap so strongly in the present is evidence that the destinations they’re tracking are so far away as to converge at the horizon. If anything, the overlap of these views is evidence of the distance we have yet to cover; given where we are, their disagreements are effectively irrelevant.

But while this doesn’t let us decide between the radical and moderate views, it does suggest that any simple-minded aim at a moderate position will likely fail to appreciate the dynamics involved. One ought to advocate for radical views in situations where radicalism helps move the discourse towards the virtuous center; often, advocating for the center is not such a view. One ought to advocate for the center in a way that helps to locate and reinforce it, but when moderate views appeal to the center-as-default, it can be counterproductive to any actual moderation precisely because it obscures the effort to find it.

Thus, and absent any deep paradox with virtue theory, the radical can indeed behave with more virtue than the moderate. The radical might not only help others better find virtue, but might herself stand as a model of virtue.

Be radical, kids.

5 thoughts on “Radicalism as a virtue

  1. “The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm.” Prompted by a BHL post I recently looked at the history of the “freedom to marry” movement for same-sex marriage, and wonder if that’s a possible example of this dynamic. After all, in the 70s and 80s, and even as late as 2000 or so, the idea of government-endorsed marriage for same-sex couples was seen as a very radical idea pretty much across the political spectrum. But in retrospect same-sex marriage seems a pretty moderate solution, particularly compared to other approaches that were seemingly less radical when first proposed; to wit:

    One proposed approach (associated with some leftists, including many LGBT activists) was to urge gays and lesbians to simply separate themselves from the supposedly bankrupt institution of marriage. But this would have meant their being locked out of the socially-endorsed relationships of love, commitment, and family that are open to heterosexual couples. Another proposed approach (associated with some libertarians) was to remove government entirely from the institution of marriage, turning it into a purely private matter. But this would have gone against a strong tradition of and public preference for government-sanctioned marriage. A final proposed approach (associated with some conservatives) was to establish “not really marriage” arrangements (e.g., “civil unions”) for same-sex couples. But this would have necessitated increased government intrusion into the private lives of transgender individuals in particular, in order to determine how to classify them (similar to the recent “who gets to go to the men’s/women’s bathroom” controversies).

    The approach the US went with in the end, namely opening up the existing institution of government-sanctioned marriage to any two consenting adults, avoided all of these various downsides, and any remaining controversies around that approach seem to be pretty muted. I thus think this is a possible good example of ultimately finding the “virtuous center” by advocating a seemingly-radical position and rejecting approaches that “appeal to the center-as-default”.

    1. A thousand times yes!! Marriage equality is a perfect example of where more radical positions are able to find the more virtuous position precisely because of its radicalism. The ‘centrist’ view, exemplified by Clinton’s defense of civil unions, is limited by its very centrism in what it can achieve.

  2. Paul Crider

    Interesting. I view both the left separatist approach and the libertarian eject-the-government-altogether approach as more radical. What actually happened was extending marriage as it exists simply to more people.

    1. Neither the left separatist approach or the libertarian approach challenged the central proposition that government-sanctioned civil marriage was and could only be for opposite-sex couples. To echo the old saying about the Internet and censorship, those two approaches interpreted that dogma as damage and attempted to route around it. Hence I see them as more conservative in intent, even if their consequences in practice (including unintended consequences) might be more far-reaching.

  3. Paul Crider

    To reiterate what I said offline, Great post.

    My primary argument against radfem was not that it’s too out there to be correct, but that the structure of the tradition was epistemically closed. I beat around the bush a little bit less in my Goodreads review:

    “Any reform, any evolution in norms and beliefs, can be interpreted as a reaction to and thus yet another perpetuation of male dominance. It’s a similar phenomenon to the Christian fundamentalist tactic of suggesting the Devil has planted evidence to tempt us away from faith in God.”

    But I think within the more epistemically open liberal feminism you can have a wide variety of views from the extreme to the relatively milquetoast. I think you’re making a great argument that diversity of views is valuable in exploring the space of possibilities.

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